At this point in time, if your film is going to take us into combat in the Iraq War and Occupation, you’d better find something fresh to say on the subject.
It takes nothing away from the men and women who served there to declare that, “House to house search? Seen it.”, “IED attack? Seen it.” or “Shootout with snipers? Seen it.”
So Netflix’s decision to re-hire one of their “Narcos” directors, Fernando Coimbra, can be regarded as an indulgence, a chance for a Brazilian filmmaker to make “my Iraq War movie,” nothing more. The fact that he cast a Brit in the lead, with an even more famous Brit as the lead’s commanding officer doesn’t help matters. What’s novel to them is old hat to American film viewers.
Nicholas Hoult (“Warm Bodies,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) is Matt Ocre, a young reservist who joined up “for the college money.” He needed it. But when he’s shipped overseas, Ocre is rattled by the environment, intimidated by the gung ho, “Proud and READY” GIs he’s assigned to. That’s why he busts his own hand in a Humvee door. He’s afraid.
That’s kind of novel, at least in the movies.
“Sand Castle” follows Ocre through his deployment, out of the relative safety of Camp Nowhere, his base, into hostile territory. Because broken hands heel, and his commanding officers (Tommy Flanagan, Henry Cavill) are going to see to it that he does his job and gets over the fear that everybody in his unit seems to see, but not discuss.
Screenwriter Chris Roessner tries his darnedest to avoid the tropes, the careless mistake in a deadly situation, a patrol ambushed, the close-comrade’s wounding/death. But rare is the moment that doesn’t feel cribbed from every Middle East combat picture since “Blackhawk Down.”
Competent in combat always looks good on film, and Flanagan (a Scottish star of “Sons of Anarchy”) does a good job of suggesting a man at ease with leadership in the field. Hoult isn’t bad at dragging us along on this inevitable, predictable story arc, truth be told.
But whatever he picked up on “Narcos,” Coimbra gets lost, as do we, in a sea of dust, sand, camouflage and combat. It’s a colorless picture where characters, even Hoult in the firefight scenes, are indistinguishable from each other.
Like the Army itself, they are but generic cogs in a vast machine, only they’re cogs in a combat movie that’s as generic as they come.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with combat violence, profanity
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill, Tommy Flanagan
Credits: Directed by Fernando Coimbra, written by Chris Roessner. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52